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Can Bulls surprise like 2004 Pistons?
by Sam Smith
Posted on Apr 18
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One of the most successful and unexpected NBA champions didn’t have a so-called star player.
The leading scorer averaged well below 20 points per game, though they had four players averaging in double figures. The best player and only All-Star was a center who couldn’t score. Their power forward preferred to shoot jump shots and their best perimeter defender was their lanky small forward. They were known for their defensive play and disciplined, deliberate offense.
“I always say it’s easy to guard one guy,” said Richard Hamilton, the leading scorer at 17.6 per game on the champion 2004 Detroit Pistons. “You can double team and things like that. But it’s hard to guard five guys because you really never know where you are trying to score. When you double team one person, another person can get a shot. It’s always tough (on the opponent) when all the guys on the floor are being aggressive.”
Now, no one is saying this Bulls team is a championship team, especially without Derrick Rose, who doesn’t appear slated to play in this series with the Brooklyn Nets, but also hasn’t ruled himself out of the playoffs.
No one is even saying the Bulls are in good enough shape to win this series with the Nets.
“They cause a lot of matchup problems,” Kirk Hinrich said of Nets former All-Star guards Deron Williams and Joe Johnson. “They both can score in the post, from the perimeter. Both have been go to guys on teams. We know how talented they are. Brook Lopez is very talented. Very long, is good with the ball. Their bench is very good. They’re deep. It’s going to take a full team effort. Coming into the season everyone was wondering if we’d make the playoffs.”
But here the Bulls are in fifth place in the Eastern Conference with a first round series against the favored Nets, who start four players who have been All-Stars with a total of 11 appearances and two from the Olympic team. The first game is 7 p.m. Saturday in Brooklyn.
So this for the Bulls figures to be more of a quest, not only given the Nets’ higher level of talent but with the Miami Heat waiting as a potential second round opponent for the winner of this series.
Hamilton by far has played in the most playoff games among all the Bulls players, 126 mostly with the Pistons that included the unlikely 2004 championship in five games over the Los Angeles Lakers featuring four future Hall of Fame players.
But the Pistons succeeded with tenacious defense with Ben Wallace on the interior, with Rasheed Wallace, Tayshaun Prince guarding the best wing player and Hamilton and Chauncey Billups across the backcourt, solid on offense and defense. But not great, at least until the playoffs.
Although the Bulls aren’t quite modeled after those Pistons with Rose, a former league MVP, the Bulls could use that Pistons team as something of an inspiration with Joakim Noah a non scoring center, the jump shooting Carlos Boozer, the defensive oriented Luol Deng, Hinrich in the Billups role and the developing Jimmy Butler and Marco Belinelli to be that shooting guard threat.
So when Wednesday’s game with the Washington Wizards ended and the Bulls came into the locker room knowing they’d be opening the playoffs in Brooklyn, Hamilton said he offered a little talk.
“It’s what I told them after the game,” Hamilton related to reporters. “I said, ‘The real season starts now. We say there’s 60 days left and we want to be the ones playing at the end of those 60 days.’
“It’s different from the regular season,” said Hamilton. “The coaches play it different. There are plays they won’t try at crunch time. They’ll put a leash on teams, play maybe seven, eight guys. There are different shots. Shots you get in the regular season you won’t get in the playoffs.”
Hamilton’s Pistons were a good team, winning 54 games in the regular season. Though they didn’t win their division, which Indiana did with 61 wins. And the playoffs were no sure thing as they hung on in the conference semifinals to beat the Nets in seven games. And they probably should have been down 2-0 in the conference finals when Prince made one of the great playoff defensive plays with a rundown block of a Reggie Miller layup attempt. In every series after the first, they defeated teams who had more All-Stars.
They accomplished it with team play, defense and one of the game’s top defensive and demanding coaches in Larry Brown, who was known for his relentless preparation and insistence on fundamental play.
The 2004 Pistons did it against stars. But sometimes stars demand too much attention to themselves in a team game.
“You’ve got to make it hard on them,” Hamilton said of playing Williams and Johnson. “They both need the ball. So that’s one thing that can help us, knowing they are a big part of their offense and they need the ball in their hands.
“They’re going to come out and be ready,” acknowledged Hamilton about the first ever NBA playoff game in Brooklyn. “They’re going to really feed off their crowd, be real excited for them and for the city. So we’ve got to change our mentality. We cannot come in with a regular season mentality. We’ve got to come out like it’s a dogfight from the beginning and make that point early. We can’t wait until we come back to Chicago to be ready to play.”
But Hamilton says he likes what he sees at this point given the difficulty of getting through the season.
“Guys are healthy,” Hamilton said. “We’ve got everybody (but Rose) back. Our biggest thing is rhythm and timing. So hopefully we can respond in Game 1. In that case, we’ll be in good shape.
“They ask a whole lot from their three main guys, Deron, Joe and Lopez,” added Hamilton. “So we’ve got to be on a string, helping each other, loading to the ball. We’ve got to be tough.
“We took a lot of hits this season,” agreed Hamilton, who says he feels as good as he has all season. “We’ve had guys in and out of the lineup all season. But we still fought. That was a good thing for us. It’s going to be exciting.”
Maybe not just like 2004. But no one much expected it then. After all, those Pistons were 25th in the league in scoring, a tough, defensive oriented rebounding team with no one in the top 25 in scoring and a hard working if mostly overlooked reserve group.